“To learn you must go to school. Less to the school of life, than to the cinema as school” – Marlowe, a character in this film.
You know, it truly is amazing the random stuff you chance upon on Youtube. I had just finished watching the excellent No Wave punk filmmaking documentary Blank City (2012; always meant to get round to it, but just forgot for a half-decade) when I noticed this Richard Hell feature I had never heard of before on the documentary’s page (note to self: watch Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis) a few entries down.
I like some Richard Hell and the Voidoids songs, and am still a sucker for NY mid 70s to mid 80s obscure and underground film stuff to this day, having first heard of the Cinema of Transgression in 1987 in Film Threat’sold magazine incarnation, so watching this was a no-brainer. In every sense of that phrase, as it unfortunately turns out.
I dunno what I was expecting, really. I went into this completely blind, not reading anything about it on the net. I like to go into something with no idea what I am potentially getting myself into, which is why I never read reviews before I see a film or write a review. I don’t want my own take on the film in question, no matter how potentially flawed, to be influenced by somebody else’s thoughts, for obvious reasons.
So a random could-be kaleidoscope flickershow ran through my head of what I might be getting: Voidoids songs (check), late 70s/early 80s NY punk posturing (check), CBGBs (check), sex (check) and violence (uncheck) and drugs (uncheck) and nihilism (uncheck) and who the fuck else knows (check). I certainly didn’t expect what I got, certainly, because I would never have thought it was possible to make punk in NY at that transitional time to be boring as (Richard) Hell.
After the credits blink-blank-blinking across signs in times Square, Blank Generation kicks off (to the hackles-raising, gorgeous Robert Quine guitar of the excellent titular song) with us in downtown NY, where A&R man Jack (Howard Grant, star of Ulli Lommel’s The Boogeyman, more on whom and which in a minute) is pimping jaded, tired middle aged record exec/businessman Kellerman (Ben Weiner) the Next Big Moneymaking Thing. “What is it? Cars? Horses? Cocaine?” Kellerman sighs wearily.
Well, nothing to do with horsepower or horseshit, as it turns out. He’s talking about Billy (Richard Hell), an up-and-coming punk singer who is just about to break big. They go and watch Billy recording the vocals in a studio by himself for New Pleasure, a song from the 1977 Voidoids album, well, Blank Generation. So we instantly get the idea okay, this is going to be some sort of fictionalised biopic about how the Hell Hell made it in the punk game. Fair enough. Except…that’s not really what we get at all.
First off, it makes no sense to go and see somebody from a punk band, a music that gets half its energy and style from violent and passionate live performance, recording solo in a studio. You would never be able to get an idea of what the band look and sound like live, which is half the battle and the sales pitch. With ostensible underground artist Billy recording vocals in a big studio, it makes it look as if he’s already basically made it and been signed, which is what the viewing is set up to do in the first place.
Well, it also set up for one other thing: to introduce Billy to French vamp Nada Lumiere (I am laughing out loud at the faux-nihilist pretension of that name – I mean, taking the name of one of the French pioneers of cinema, and giving the character a first name that means ‘nothing’ in Spanish, eh? Poetic nihilism, maaaaan!) who is there to interview him for French television. How an unsigned, underground band have been heard of in France in pre-net days is beyond me, but Billy’s love interest has to get into the film somehow, right?
Nada is played by beautiful one-time model and Bond girl Carole Bouquet, who gives a somewhat fragrant, poor performance, never missing a chance to laugh and beam widely to flash her expensive dental work. For some obscure reason she has been sent from Europe to do this interview by herself with a handheld video camera, and during the whole running time often waves it, or a Super 8 camera, around wildly. It makes no sense (though her crew do appear later), but we’ve already decided to pretty much suspend all logic in order to just get on with the damned thing.
Of course, Nada falls in love with Billy as she watches him lay down the vocal track. It’s kind of humourous because, to try and show some measure of passion and energy, Hell pulls sneering, bulging-eyed faces that makes it look a bit like he has constipation, and is trying to push out a particularly stubborn arse-cactus shite. Hell is not a particularly great actor, with words and music and singing being much more his artistic playgrounds, and it’s quite simply not possible to capture the fractured, angry, trapped dynamism of a singer like him in close-up in a recording studio.
Still, Nada is smitten, so all that ring-ripping, shite-bringing cringing has not been in vain. And he gets signed to the record company too! A contract and a girl in one fell swoop! Days like that don’t come along too often, that’s for sure. They go back to her place and she continues her interview, with Billy and her bonding over rolling around shoving the camera in each others’s faces and being fake-edgy. We get the idea, given the warning, pounding drums on the soundtrack (which often sounds like it should be in a horror film, and is totally wrong for the film), that this is going to be some sort of tiresome, sparring-artistes amour fou (or amour fou ay shite, as the Scots would put it). We brace ourselves for scenes potentially involving reading poetry whilst tearing despairingly at inkstained frilly white shirts. Thankfully they never appear, though there are some of Hell’s trademark torn shirts and jumble sale jumpers on display, so it comes dangerously close in places. “You and me could, uh…conquer the world,” he sagely, vaguely threatens. Dialogue to kill (the screenwriters) for.
After an evening of chaste fucking we don’t get to see (there’s no nudity in the film; bizarrely, given the potentially controversial subject matter, there is very little offensive material in it), Billy and Nada (sounds like a satiric nihilistic poetry book title) take off to the beach, but he wants to turn back. Then doesn’t. Understandably enraged, Nada kicks the singer out of his own car and fucks off in it! Hell is funny in this film, odd funny and not ha-ha funny. He comes across as a somewhat, placid, milquetoast character, pussywhipped and sort of emo-poetic pathetic. I don’t know how much of the real man’s personality is in this, but it’s just how he comes across to me, here, is all.
I actually kind of liked the fact that there’s no macho grandstanding in his performance. I mean, Hell could have chosen to portray himself as some sort of suave stud, but instead gives an oddly naïve, vulnerable performance, a good-looking, nice, dirty, clean-cut Jewish boy with a trembling lower lip except when he’s onstage. The film shows that sometimes women can wear the trousers and be just as scary and unbalanced as men, if not more so. Not that Nada is hugely unbalanced; the two of them are just locked in some chemistry-free dunce dance that’s more pas de deux than sex crime passionnel. In real life, Hell had a camera-wielding French girlfriend at one time, who appeared in his so-so 1996 novel Go Now (and apparently was not pleased at this), so you do idly wonder how much or little of this was based on her. He’s one of four screenwriters (never a good sign) on the production, too, so you would imagine chunks of it are based on his real life.
Billy goes to drown his sorrows, and wonder where the fuck his car is, in CBGBs. There, a French barman (whose real name is, delightfully, only credited as ‘Igor’ at the end) serves him cognac and listens to his woes. We finally get to see the Voidoids (never named in the film) play live in the famous bar to…nobody at all, just practicing. It’s totally bizarre. We do eventually see them play live to a bored-looking, paper-throwing seated audience, in one set that is cut up and spread throughout the film, meant to be several different performances.
There is absolutely no star-time interaction whatsoever with the rest of the band during the film, with them only starring in the practice or live footage, making this appear like a solo vanity project in some ways. The fact that only Hell’s tunes play during the running time almost make it seem like we’re getting an X-ray into the brain of a self-absorbed narcissist, though it’s probably saving money on having to pay rights money for other bands’ punk music that fosters this suffocating solipsistic sonic atmosphere.
So anyway, Nada comes back, and they get back together. And split up. Rinse and repeat until defeat of patience. They’re one of those horrible couples who drag melodrama with them wherever they go, always kissing-and-making-and-breaking up. Billy comes off like a petulant 31-year-old teenage boy, throwing his clothes and records on the floor during one scene. Anarchy, maaaaan! Their tempestuous, muted-temper-storm-tossed relationship is modelled on that of 19th French homosexual poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine, the former of whom Hell nicked his haircut and some poetic riffs from, and the latter whose namesake was in Television with Hell. The real-life fin-de-siecle duo were lovers and liked to beat and shoot each other, art irritating life and all that jizz.
To be honest, I just made that up about this film’s relationship being based on the French lover nutters for the (Richard) Hell of it. Only threw it in to make myself look artsy and knowledgeable and academic, and using this sort of poetic reference retroactively makes me feel better about all the time I wasted when younger reading about this foppish poncey dreck. It’s just two highly strung types being all love-and-hateish, ultimately, and bugger all to do with long-dead Franco-homo erotic combatants. Still, got your poetry-loving pulses pounding there at the thought, though, eh? You’re welcome.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, another love warrior moves in for the relationship kill. Hoffritz, a German TV interviewer, has hit American shores, and things will never be the same again for Nada and Billy. She’s actually been cheating on Hoffritz and we know, with him being a refined European aesthete (every time we see him there’s classical music playing to reinforce how suave a fucker he is) that he won’t take any of this Old Country-vs-New, tug-of-whore crap for too long. Hoffritz is played by the film’s director Ulli Lommel himself, who has been sent stateside to do an interview with Andy Warhol.
This is where the film really starts to fall apart. Up until now it’s been a fairly conventional hate-and-love story, but the Boogeyman director turning up pulls the thing completely out of shape. I mean, I get that he’s there to add some supposed spice to the love triangle angle, but the fact that he just now wanders through the film making endless phone calls to locate Warhol just has you sitting shrugging and asking yourself what the fuck you’re watching. The relationship thread pretty much gets jettisoned and Herrfritz (sorry, Hoffritz) becomes an angry Teutonic Ahab, with the Factory head honcho as his shite-wigged Moby Dick. Why? Why not? Apparently Lommel and Warhol were NY collaborators, so maybe they just thought they’d fuck him into the mix to try and get the film a wider audience amongst people who didn’t know who Hell was. I genuinely have no idea.
Nada dumps poor blindsided Billy. She takes up with Hasselhoffritz and they search for Warhol. She does a couple of interviews along the way, one with a black football player, and another with a filmmaker-cum-writer (whose ludicrously pretentious quote starts this piece), that are clearly put in there to pad out the anorexic 78-minute running time. They get closer to Warhol. His assistant comes out for no reason and starts playing a violin and wearing light-flashing glasses. I would have booted the cunt out the nearest window. Then, glancing fearfully round to make sure his would-be assassin Valerie Solanas is nowhere in sight, Warhol himself turns up and gives one of his patented crap evasive interviews. Joy. Nada makes up with Billy again, then decides to go back to Europe with Herrfritz, but changes her mind in the airport at the last minute and runs to meet Billy, who has fucked off cos he thought he lost her to a German horror filmmaker. We’ve all done similar things in life, let’s face it. She stands looking round in anguish. The film ends. We shake our heads and wonder briefly about it all, then forget it and move onto the next film or book or record or bath salts fix or whatever.
I have to say, I have absolutely no idea what this film is truly meant to be. At heart, it’s not exactly a biopic, and shows up its subject as nerdy and needy. It’s not a relationship film, because that gets jettisoned two-thirds of the way through. If its intent was to make a bigger star of Richard Hell (who was never as big as some of his 70s CBGB counterparts), the fact I had never heard of it tells us something. If it set out to document the punk scene round CBGBs, it was filmed a few years too late, and the tame Voidoids performance in the film is hardly typical of wild nights held there. Was it a feature-length toothpaste advert for Bouquet’s teeth? A Warhol cameo with a whole film built round it? I have no fucking idea. I do know that, quite simply, it’s not a very good or interesting film, a time capsule that missed its time. I will leave you with another ludicrously pretentious quote from Marlowe, the India-wandering writer wanker character interviewed:
“The movie theater has its moment of glory. One comes to sleep in a bed of images to get an eyeful, to blind oneself in the process. To see too much, and to see too badly.”
Too much, and too badly, indeed. Now, where’s Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis…